Field Notes


Nearly everyone dances at some time in their lives and for various reasons. Dance is ingrained in human culture; in sports, communication, celebration, emotional expression, and healing. It appears throughout human civilization and culture from Punk to Ballet to Ceremonial. It is integral to high school dances and weddings. Dance is the main feature at Native American PowWows across Northern Michigan. But dancing is most attached to dating, courtship, and romance; nature’s grand scheme to bring a prospective couple face to face, at which point hormones are entrusted to take over and lead to more intimate things.

Spending several seasons observing and filming sandhill cranes, as I have done, can hardly fail to convince anyone that dance is not unique to humans, but a behavior exhibited by species diverged from us long ago, and whose cerebral hardwiring we still share. Though we have taken it to extraordinary levels, I believe that dancing is as instinctual to us as it is to them.

The cranes in the following video always incorporate dance into their courtship rituals. The first moments show the couple performing what I unscientifically label “Necking & Throating”, a kind of dance in itself that goes on for often an hour. I might add “Cheeking” because as they strut slowly with necks outstretched, you can see throats and cheeks rippling and puffing. They seldom face each other during this phase, and can get fairly far apart. What isn’t audible, due to my distance from the pair, are low-volume croaking sounds, communication intended for the benefit of the other. Next, the courtship dance commences, ending finally in a unison call. Sometimes mating follows immediately, sometimes not at all. The two-noted call is done by the female (on the left), accompanied by her mate’s single-note call, whose breath is visible in the frosty March air.

Just to illustrate the fact that not all crane dancing is done strictly for mating purposes, I’ve included a brief segment of the same crane couple in July, recorded in a previous season, after a nest failure produced no young that year.


One response to “Field Notes

  1. Enjoyed the Sandhill dances. Thanks for posting the videos.

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